Kyrie Irving is one of the greatest players of his generation. The 6’3 point guard made one of the most iconic shots in recent NBA history with his clutch three-pointer in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals to help the Cleveland Cavaliers pull off a historic upset of the 73-win Golden State Warriors. While LeBron James rightfully gets a lot of the credit for that championship, Cleveland’s comeback from a 3-1 deficit couldn’t have happened without Irving, who averaged more than 27 points per game for the series.
Irving has been something of a vagabond since demanding a trade from the Cavs two years later. He was ultimately considered a disappointment in his two seasons with the Boston Celtics before joining Kevin Durant on the Brooklyn Nets in free agency. Irving was playing some of his best ball for the Nets last season — he was named All-NBA for the second time in his career — before he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Game 4 of the team’s second round series against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Irving is a 7-time All-Star who is known as one of the greatest ball handlers and layup makers of all-time. He’s also known for occasionally holding passionate beliefs in bogus conspiracy theories. Irving once famously said he believed the Earth was flat. Now he’s missed the start of the 2021-2022 season because he’s refused to get the Covid vaccine.
Irving is finally returning to an NBA floor for the Nets, but he’ll only be allowed to play in road games because he still hasn’t gotten his vaccine shots. Here’s how Kyrie became a part-time player for Brooklyn.
New York City has vaccine mandate for public gyms
In August, New York City announced it would be the first American city to require at least one shot of the Covid vaccine for activities like indoor dining and going to the gym. The city’s NBA gyms — the Nets’ Barclays Center and the Knicks’ Madison Square Garden — were included in the mandate, but only for players on the home teams. Visiting players are exempt from the vaccine mandate.
The mandate meant Nets and Knicks players had to get their shots to play. Every player on both teams did exactly that, with only one exception.
Kyrie Irving refused to get the Covid vaccine
Irving’s refusal to get the Covid vaccine was first hinted at during media day. While the rest of the Nets were in the gym to meet the media, Kyrie talked to the press over Zoom. While he didn’t confirm or deny that he was unvaccinated, it was easy to read the tea leaves from afar.
Irving asked reporters for privacy regarding his vaccination decision, and said he’d reveal more information soon. He also said he didn’t want to create any distractions.
“I know that I’ll be there every day no matter what and just be present for my teammates as one of the leaders on the team and be there for my growing tribe off the court,” Irving said.
“I know the focus has to be at an all-time high, no distractions. This is the last thing I wanted to create, was more distractions and more hoopla and more drama around this. I’m doing my best to maintain this with good intentions and a good heart.”
The Nets say Kyrie won’t be a part-time player
During the ramp up to the season, Irving was allowed to practice with the Nets after a ruling Brooklyn’s training facility was considered a private building, meaning the vaccine mandate didn’t apply. If Irving refused to get his get shots, the best he could hope for was practicing with the team and only playing road games.
The Nets put an end to that speculation before the season began when they said Irving wouldn’t be a part-time player.
Brooklyn Nets full statement on Kyrie Irving’s situation. pic.twitter.com/U4TsrLg1mU— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) October 12, 2021
While the team said it respected Kyrie’s decision not to get vaccinated, top executive Sean Marks spoke about the need to get the city and the world back to a more healthy and safer place.
He said the decision to rule out using Irving as a part-time player was made in conjunction with team governor Joe Tsai.
“There are countless, countless workers who have lost jobs because of this, there are people who have lost loved ones and so forth and as I’ve mentioned before this is serious,” Marks said. “And we play a game of basketball. And although it’s serious and we take our job extremely seriously, these are mandates that right now we don’t have any control over. All we can do is abide by them and think that science and the people governing — whether it’s our city, whether it’s our state, whether the country — are making the right calls for us all to get back and to move on into a healthy and safer environment.”
Irving would be docked his game check only for the home games hie missed. It would cost him roughly $380K per game.
Marks also said he hoped Kyrie would play this season. At the time, it seemed like that would only happen if New York City ended its vaccine mandate, or if Irving got the shots.
Sean Marks: "The hope is that we'll have Kyrie back ... we'll welcome him back with open arms under different circumstances."— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) October 12, 2021
Nets teammate Kevin Durant also spoke of the desire to have Irving as a full-time player:
“We want him here for the whole thing,” Durant said of Irving. “We want him here for games, home games, practices, away games, shootarounds, all of it, so hopefully we figure this thing out.”
The Nets were winning without Kyrie, but the extra workout was taking a toll on his teammates
The Nets have been really good without Irving this year. The team was in first place in the Eastern Conference for most of the season, and sat atop the standings on New Years Eve with a 23-10 record.
Despite the Nets’ success, Irving’s absence placed a huge burden on co-stars Durant and James Harden. Durant currently leads the NBA in scoring at nearly 30 points per game while playing 37 minutes per night, which is No. 2 in the league. Harden is also top-five in the league in minutes per game at 36.5 minutes per night.
The Nets have also been one of the most impacted teams in the league by Covid, missing players for a number of games because they were in health and safety protocol after the last month.
NBA covid data from Fansure is updated through January 2nd now and…we’re back on top baby pic.twitter.com/pmlar0y1rL— Max (@lissmx14) January 4, 2022
Midway through Dec., the Nets finally announced that Irving would again be part of the team — even if he had to be a part-time player.
Kyrie Irving begins his comeback
On Dec. 17, the organization announced that Kyrie would re-join the team.
Nets statement on the return of Kyrie Irving: pic.twitter.com/nRfF6OJCJx— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) December 18, 2021
This meant Irving would play road games with the Nets, despite the organization’s insistence that he needed to be a full-time player a few months earlier.
Why did the Nets allow Irving to return? According to Tsai, it’s to help the team win the championship. This isn’t exactly breaking news.
“We’re trying to be practical. And I’ve always said I don’t want to make this a political issue,” Tsai told The Post by phone Friday night. “My only religion is to win games and win the championship. That’s where we are.”
As soon as Irving came back to the team, he immediately tested positive for Covid.
Nets star Kyrie Irving has entered COVID-19 health and safety protocols.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) December 18, 2021
Kyrie Irving’s return date is set for Jan. 5 against the Pacers
Irving is making his return to the Nets on Jan. 5 when the team travels to play the Indiana Pacers. He’ll be allowed to practice with the Nets at home but he still can’t play in home games. Instead, the Nets will allow Kyrie to play on the road after saying they wouldn’t do that at the start of the season.
Irving said he had been practicing at middle school and college gyms to stay sharp. Now he’s returning.
Kyrie and Durant getting some shots up.— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) December 30, 2021
Why Kyrie Irving will be a part-time NBA player for the Nets
- Kyrie is still unvaccinated.
- New York City has a vaccine mandate that requires home players to have their shots to compete in games.
- After refusing to let Irving only play in road games for the start of the season, the Nets reversed course and let Irving re-join the team.
- He’s likely to only play in road games all year.
We’re about to witness one of the strangest situations in league history: a superstar player, playing for a championship-level team, will only compete in road games for the rest of the season. The only way this changes is if New York City lifts its vaccine mandate, or Irving gets his shots. It doesn’t seem like either of those two options will happen anytime soon.
Kyrie is back, but only on the road. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out.